Portrait in Sepia
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Portrait in Sepia

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by Isabel Allende

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Internationally celebrated novelist Isabel Allende has written a magnificent historical novel set at the end of the nineteenth century in Chile, a marvelous family saga that takes up and continues the story begun in her highly acclaimed Daughter of Fortune.

Recounted in the voice of a young woman in search of her roots, Portrait in Sepia is a novel


Internationally celebrated novelist Isabel Allende has written a magnificent historical novel set at the end of the nineteenth century in Chile, a marvelous family saga that takes up and continues the story begun in her highly acclaimed Daughter of Fortune.

Recounted in the voice of a young woman in search of her roots, Portrait in Sepia is a novel about memory and family secrets. Aurora del Valle suffers a brutal trauma that shapes her character and erases from her mind all recollection of the first five years of her life. Raised by her ambitious grandmother, the regal and commanding Paulina del Valle, she grows up in a privileged environment, free of the limitations that circumscribe the lives of women at that time, but tormented by horrible nightmares. When she is forced to recognize her betrayal at the hands of the man she loves, and to cope with the resulting solitude, she decides to explore the mystery of her past.

Portrait in Sepia is an extraordinary achievement: richly detailed, epic in scope, intimate in its probing of human character, and thrilling in the way it illuminates the complexity of family ties.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Few authors today write with as much exuberance as Isabel Allende. Her books House of the Spirits, Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, and the phenomenally bestselling Daughter of Fortune are like grapes bursting in your mouth -- sometimes tart, sometimes sweet, always sensual, and unfailingly juicy. Portrait in Sepia, Allende's third book in a loose trilogy about a Chilean extended family in the 19th and 20th centuries, is a full bottle of wine -- warm, robust, and intoxicating -- a mesmerizing bildungsroman of one young woman's journey of self-discovery.

Beautiful, passionate Aurora del Valle is tormented by nightmares from her childhood. The illegitimate grandchild of Paulina del Valle (a strong-willed, fiery Chilean matriarch who publicly humiliates her cheating husband by parading a Florentine bed through the city streets), Aurora begins life in uncertainty -- living with her maternal grandparents, Tao Chi'en and Eliza Sommers (protagonist of Daughter of Fortune) in San Francisco. Tao Chi'en, a well-respected and ardent activist in the community, has made it his life's mission to keep the numerous Chinese girls coming to California from going into prostitution. When a violent episode occurs that shatters the only family she has ever really known, Aurora is sent to live with her hot-blooded but loving grandmother, Paulina. In Chile, Aurora discovers a passion for photography and soon masters the art of looking into her subjects' hearts and souls. Through her craft she discovers love and heartache and confronts the memories she has repressed for so many years.

Passionate, enthralling, and filled with anecdotes and side stories that are more colorful than a Peruvian parrot, Allende's storytelling evokes Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Yet whereas the latter sculpts a world of magic realism, Allende has captured in sepia tones the magical, extraordinary lives and loves of Aurora and her wild family, making them so realistic and familiar that you'll swear they're part of your own family. (Stephen Bloom)

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HarperCollins Publishers
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P.S. Series
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)
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Chapter One

I came into the world one Tuesday in the autumn of 1880, in San Francisco, in the home of my maternal grandparents. While inside that labyrinthine wood house my mother panted and pushed, her valiant heart and desperate bones laboring to open a way out to me, the savage life of the Chinese quarter was seething outside, with its unforgettable aroma of exotic food, its deafening torrent of shouted dialects, its inexhaustible swarms of human bees hurrying back and forth. I was born in the early morning, but in Chinatown the clocks obey no rules, and at that hour the market, the cart traffic, the woeful barking of caged dogs awaiting the butcher's cleaver, were beginning to heat up. I have come to know the details of my birth rather late in life, but it would have been worse not to discover them at all, they could have been lost forever in the cracks and crannies of oblivion. There are so many secrets in my family that I may never have time to unveil them all: truth is short-lived, watered down by torrents of rain. My maternal grandparents welcomed me with emotion -- even though according to several witnesses I was ugly as sin -- and placed me at my mother's breast, where I lay cuddled for a few minutes, the only ones I was to have with her. Afterward my uncle Lucky blew his breath in my face to pass his good luck on to me. His intention was generous and the method infallible, because at least for these first thirty years of my life, things have gone well. But careful! I don't want to get ahead of myself. This is a long story, and it begins before my birth; it requires patience in the telling and even more in thelistening. If I lose the thread along the way, don't despair, because you can count on picking it up a few pages further on. Since we have to begin at some date, let's make it 1862, and let's say, to choose something at random, that the story begins with a piece of furniture of unlikely proportions.

Paulina del Valle's bed was ordered from Florence the year following the coronation of Victor Emmanuel, when in the new kingdom of Italy the echoes of Garibaldi's cannon shots were still reverberating. It crossed the ocean, dismantled, in a Genoese vessel, was unloaded in New York in the midst of a bloody strike, and was transferred to one of the steamships of the shipping line of my paternal grandparents, the Rodriguez de Santa Cruzes, Chileans residing in the United States. It was the task of Captain John Sommers to receive the crates marked in Italian with a single word: naiads. That robust English seaman, of whom all that remains is a faded portrait and a leather trunk badly scuffed from infinite sea journeys and filled with strange manuscripts, was my great-grandfather, as I found out recently when my past finally began to come clear after many years of mystery. I never met Captain John Sommers, the father of Eliza Sommers, my maternal grandmother, but from him I inherited a certain bent for wandering. To that man of the sea, pure horizon and salt, fell the task of transporting the Florentine bed in the hold of his ship to the other side of the American continent. He had to make his way through the Yankee blockade and Confederate attacks, sail to the southern limits of the Atlantic, pass through the treacherous waters of the Strait of Magellan, sail into the Pacific Ocean, and then, after putting in briefly at several South American ports, point the bow of his ship toward northern California, that venerable land of gold. He had precise orders to open the crates on the pier in San Francisco, supervise the ship's carpenter while he assembled the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, taking care not to nick the carvings, install the mattress and ruby-colored canopy, set the whole construction on a cart, and dispatch it at a leisurely pace to the heart of the city. The coachman was to make two complete turns around Union Square, and another two -- while jingling a little bell -- before the balcony of my grandfather's concubine, before depositing it at its final destination, the home of Paulina del Valle. This fanfaronade was to be performed in the midst of the Civil War, when Yankee and Confederate armies were massacring each other in the South and no one was in any mood for jokes or little bells. John Sommers fulfilled the instructions cursing, because during months of sailing that bed had come to symbolize what he most detested about his job: the whims of his employer, Paulina del Valle. When he saw the bed displayed on the cart, he sighed and decided that that would be the last thing he would ever do for her. He had spent twelve years following her orders and had reached the limits of his patience. That bed still exists, intact. It is a weighty dinosaur of polychrome wood; the headboard is presided over by the god Neptune surrounded by foaming waves and undersea creatures in bas-relief, and the foot, frolicking dolphins and cavorting sirens. Within a few hours, half of San Francisco had the opportunity to appreciate that Olympian bed. My grandfather's amour, however, the one to whom the spectacle was dedicated, hid as the cart went by, and then went by a second time with its little bell.

"My triumph lasted about a minute," Paulina confessed to me many years later, when I insisted on photographing the bed and knowing all the details. "The joke backfired on me. I thought everyone would make fun of Feliciano, but they turned it on me. I misjudged. Who would have imagined such hypocrisy? In those days San Francisco was a hornet's nest of corrupt politicians, bandits, and loose women."...

Portrait in Sepia. Copyright © by Isabel Allende. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Born in Peru, Isabel Allende was raised in Chile. She is the author of the novels Portrait in Sepia, Daughter of Fortune, The Infinite Plan, Eva Luna, Of Love and Shadows, and The House of the Spirits, the short story collection The Stories of Eva Luna, the memoir Paula, and Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses. She lives in California.

Brief Biography

San Rafael, California
Date of Birth:
August 2, 1942
Place of Birth:
Lima, Peru

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Portrait in Sepia 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Once again, Allende has shown why she is such a good writer. The protagonist in this story is Aurora del Valle, the granddaughter of Eliza Sommers. Like Eliza, she is a strong, passionate woman who must hold her own in the world she lives in. The characters are well developed and memorable, the setting vivid, and the plot lively. I felt as though I had been temporarily adopted into a Chilean family and loved instantly. I had so much fun, I didn't want to leave. This is a beautiful book!
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Amy_Kearns More than 1 year ago
Portrait in Sepia, by Isabel Allende, (published by HarperCollins Publishers Inc. in 2001 in New York) was a distinctive novel filled with twists and turns of surprise. Although the first section of the book starts off slow, it has a unique idea behind it: throughout this entire section you are unaware of who the narrator is. It takes place in Chinatown, where the family of Eliza Sommers, her husband Tao Chi-en, their son, and their daughter Lynn live. The other main family lives just outside of Chinatown, and this is the wealthy family of Paulina del Valle, her husband Feliciano Rodríguez de Santa Cruz, their son Matías, two other sons, and Paulina's nephew, Severo del Valle. Within the first section, the narrator, unidentified, tells the story of how she came to be. Lynn Sommers is her mother, who died at her birth, and Matías is her biological father, but Severo del Valle is her legal father. Lynn marries Severo when Matías leaves after she finds out she is pregnant, but then dies soon after the birth of Aurora, the narrator and main character who was finally revealed. The second and third sections of the novel are basically telling of the life of Aurora. At first she lived with her grandparents, Eliza and Tao, and this was for five years until her grandfather died and Eliza made the decision to hand Aurora over to Paulina, her other grandmother. Throughout the novel, you find out about Aurora's past, and this includes her relationship with her Grandmother and all of her other family, as well as her love of photography. This fictional memoir has an exceptional way, though it is not always effective, of engaging the reader in order to share Aurora's recollections. I did not find this book interesting, but this is merely because it did not fit my personal taste. However, the occasional simile made long paragraphs go by quickly, like when Severo came to visit Aurora, he "made her whirl like a top so he could look at her from every angle" (Allende 221). Engaging similes like this one take a book to a new level. One factor that I did not like, however, was the fact that there is a minimal amount of dialogue in this book. One other thing I did enjoy about Portrait in Sepia was the significance of the actual title. Towards the end the connection is made between the fact that she is a photographer and that the title is about a portrait. I would show a quote, but it would give away the final line of the book, and I would not want to give away this epiphany. Reading this was not only enjoyable at times, but it also held some interesting information. At one point, Severo goes to war to honor his country and he participates in The War of the Pacific. By reading this book you are immersed in not only Spanish culture, but also history. I also was exposed to numerous Spanish words throughout the novel, and it was either said the definition, or you had to use context clues or a dictionary to find out. At one point on page 251, for example, chancaca was told to be dark sugar. I would recommend this book, but only to certain audiences. I for one am a fan of books that are not as laid back and slow-progressing as this one, but many people have a taste in books that is completely opposite to mine. You would enjoy this novel if you like reading about war, romance, and the general unwinding story of a girl's life. Portrait in Sepia is a novel that to fully appreciate it you have to have a certain preference.
ktran More than 1 year ago
I read this while traveling and really like learning about the time period and setting. Thought parts of the story dragged on but liked the characters and overall a good book.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book had so much potential. The story had complicated, lovable characters, the author has a beautiful talent for crafting exquisite prose, and the setting in luscious Chile around the turn of the century provided for ample plot turns in itself. However, I think that maybe a little too luch time passed in the storyline too many characters appeared and then disappeared. Sometime after Aurora leaves the del Valle home in Santiago to live with the Dominguez family, the story just becomes boring. The novel seemed to be charging towards some sort of vindication for Aurora, something that would reveal her true destiny. But it never happens, she seems to just give up at the end of the book, resigned to living off her father's fortune with a man she can't marry. She never becomes a famous photographer. The book just ends, as if the author didn't know quite what else to do with it. She hurriedly explains in the last pages Aurora's deep secret and what happened to the characters that disappeared in the earlier pages. This plotline falls flat. And, at times, the author seems to stoop to Harlequin-novel type-preposterous-sex-scenes which honestly deplete the realness of the characters. But the author's skill for prose saves this novel from being a total waste of time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Unlike Daughter of Fortune this one had an extremely bland ending. I was very disappointed and felt sorry for the main character as she was betrayed and fell into a friend with benifits relationship that never had any resolution as far as the reader knows of, Very Disapointed
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading and enjoying Daughter of Fortune, I thought this was a must read. With the exception of some pages of historical set up that seems tedious at times, it was actually pretty enjoyable and read pretty quickly. I like all the characters and all the turns. My biggest beef would have to be that some of the dialogue and language borders on hokey at times. there was one line that read 'he licked her sex'. i cringed at it! almost laughed out loud! But if you're looking for a good read that will keep you enchanted, this is it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was great, and filled with interesting details. However the ending was predictable and didn't surprise the reader in any way. A great book for a rainy day!